Monday, May 26, 2014

Helping the cancer-patient to bear the Cross of Christ

This week’s blog entry is dedicated to Bernice, an incredible lady of faith whom I have been blessed to know as a priest.  She enters into a new dimension of her faith in God this week as she begins her chemotherapy and journey with cancer, illness, and active cross-carrying.

As a cancer patient myself, I would never ever want anyone to have to go through the arduous treatment that chemotherapies and cancer-related treatments that we need to.  One of the things that we first look out for when told that this is the course which we have to undergo is to ask folk who have gone through similar treatments what to expect and how to deal with its pains and side effects.  While each patient takes each course of treatment as differently as body constitutions are different, there are certain similarities that abound and words of encouragement are always a boon.  I hope these following points will help to assuage any fears and calm the anxieties of people who may have to seek similar treatments for their illnesses.

1.   It helps to talk about your feelings to trusted friends and relations.
Bottling up your fears and sadness is going to be tempting, especially for people who deem themselves as quiet and reclusive.  But when we are blessed with a few close friends and trusted companions in life, know that these people are gifts from God at times like these when compassionate and listening ears are a blessing indeed.  I may be just the opposite where I shamelessly write about my struggles for the whole world to read, but I guess this has become part of my priesthood and ministry, and the writing had always had one thing in mind – to help those who need it most. 

2.   Try to always look at life not in isolated incidences but as a whole.
When given the news of any illness, especially those that have a recovery and treatment that is for the long haul, it is going to be tempting to only look at life from the point of the illness alone, and fill our minds and hearts with remorse, sadness and regret.  What can help to change the vista that leaves us stuck in melancholy is to take things in a much broader perspective.  The more experiences of life that we have had (hopefully this means that the older we are), the broader our life-horizons are to give us this perspective.  Always see the current situation as an added dimension to all that you have been blessed with in life so far.  Our life certainly is not demarcated by the illness.  It has been dotted with plenty of blessings, the presence of God’s grace and many joys that we have all had a share of.  Reflected on them, and thanking God for them can become a beautiful part of our living prayer each day, apart from only asking God to remove our suffering and pains.

3.   The burden of Cross-carrying is an invitation to be in close imitation of Christ.
Not to sound masochistic, but the reality is that no Christian is called to a cushy and rose-petal laden path of life.  Cross carrying is not only something necessary, but also a very hidden blessing that many do not appreciate nor understand.  What serious illness does to our faith can often be a point of contention, but the person of faith needs to try to see pains and suffering as an invitation to come as close to Christ as possible in this life.  Much as it can be a moment (or moments) of anger and regret, loneliness and darkness, with God’s grace and a heart full of faith, our illness and suffering can also be transformed into acts of mercy and purification for the Church and souls in need of acts of mercy from us.  This makes no sense at all to one who has not been introduced to the person of Christ, but for someone of deep faith like you, it makes all the difference.  I remember hearing for the first time my prognosis early last year, and the first thing that came to my mind was that this has to be a hidden blessing, because it will bring me that much closer to Christ who I am called to love and to make his presence known in the world.

4.   Take your time to reach this point in your journey.
As a human being, it may be very necessary to go through the various stages of grief when faced with such news as a long-term illness and recuperation.  It is ok to grieve and be sad, but know that there will be good days along with the bad ones.  Allow yourself to grieve if you have to, but also know that these rainy days do not last forever.  As Christ is by your side as your savior and friend, he too wants you to see the days when the mere sight of the rising sun in the morning gives us great hope to keep our faith and love intact.

5.   Hair will grow back. 
It may be one of the chief concerns of many patients who face chemotherapy that they will be shedding their manes soon.  Ok, so I speak as a male who doesn’t really mind the bald look, but it helps to see that our hair is not what defines us.  I recall one morning in hospital when I first started my series of chemotherapies when my room door was left open, and so was the one that was facing my room.  In the other room was a lady who sat on a chair by her bed, and with her head bowed down, was pulling clumps and clumps of her long hair dropping them on the floor in front of her.  I remember distinctively saying to myself “oh, is this how it happens?”  and tried doing it myself.  Clumps of my own hair stayed in both my hands at that same instant.  At that point, I identified myself closer and closer with all the cancer patients in the world than if I were to participate in any “Hair for hope” charity hair-shave.  I was blessed to be in close unity with them at least from a physical standpoint.  And besides, it was always good to be reminded that after the treatment ends, hair does grow back.  Sometimes in spades too!

6.   Pain medication is a gift from God.  Use it.
There will be times when we will experience the physical pains of our treatment as cancer patients.  These come in all forms, from nerve pain, to bone pain, to muscle aches.  Our illness is already a heavy cross to bear.  We do not need to add to it by tolerating our pains with a grin of resolve.  Be as descriptive of our pains to our doctors and caregivers as possible so that we may be given the adequate pain medication, which is very advanced these days.  It helps us sleep better and takes our minds off our illness and to use our energies for much more positive things like prayer, being in a positive disposition and people of good cheer. 

7.   There will be days when prayer seems to be the most difficult thing to do.
Just as there will be physically good days and bad days in our treatment journey, so too will we see a similar pattern in our prayer life.  Don’t beat yourself up when you find yourself facing those days when you find prayer so difficult for whatever reason.  Offer up your struggle as your prayer.  Sometimes, just looking at a holy picture placed near the hospital bed can become a prayer in itself when we feel furthest away from God in prayer.  This is the beauty of our Catholic tradition where sacramental are concerned.  Make the best use of them so that you can face these prayer-less days with fewer words, but more love.

8.   Have Romans 14:7 close to your heart.  It helps on those dark days.
This quote from Paul reminds us that we are not our own.  We of faith live and die for the Lord.  If our deaths is for the Lord, so too must our endurance through the trials and difficulties of life.  Besides, know that people from all walks of life look at us as Christian sufferers and many of them want to see a difference in the way we take on these life struggles.  When we do them with a style and class that is distinctively different, we become living testimonies of God’s presence in our life, and in the world. 

As much as these points seem long and arduous, I hope that these have not bored the regular reader of my weekly column.  If you are not a cancer patient, praise the Lord!  Perhaps you can use these points to give some one who needs a lift in their own journey.  As for Bernice, in the most positive way, I’d say, “welcome to the cancer club”.  It’s not for the dying.  It’s for the living.  Remember that we are not dying from cancer – we are living with cancer.   


  1. Good morning Fr Luke. Thank you for a thought-provoking piece. One need not be afflicted with cancer to benefit from your sharing and teaching. We could be plagued by pains and sufferings of sorts, suicidal for some who feel the absence of God in their lives or a loss of hope that some form of relief or cure would be in sight. Or those who might ask "God, why me?".

    When you say "I remember hearing for the first time my prognosis early last year, and the first thing that came to my mind was that this has to be a hidden blessing..." I was thinking to myself - would I ever consider a suffering or an illness as a hidden blessing. Will my faith be as strong as yours Fr Luke to see it in a different light.

  2. Good points, Fr. Luke. This is timely! A dear friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer some three weeks ago. It came as a shock to us all. I will forward this article to him and of course, continue to pray for him (and others, including yourself) as well. God bless!

  3. Haha frLuke, cancer or no cancer, your reflections+ruminations are so comforting and assuring for most if not all 'categories' of people. And i am going to share it on my fb :)


  4. Thank you Father. My cross is a child with mental illness. I don't know how to bear it. Romans 14:7 indeed. Thank you, and may God bless you. JM